Dead, Dead, Dead

The police killings of Pedro Oregon, Ida Lee Delaney and Byron Gillum

According to police investigators, as the officers rushed in, a second man in the apartment, Rogelio's brother Pedro, ran through the hallway toward a back room. As he did, one officer yelled that the fleeing man had a gun. At almost the same time, a shot rang out, and Tillery, struck in the side, fell to the ground.

Later the other officers would find out that they hadn't been fired upon, that instead, Barrera had accidentally discharged his weapon. But later would be too late.

During the brief, one-sided gun battle that followed, officers fired 33 times at Oregon. According to investigators, 24 of those shots came from Barrera, who paused to reload his pistol.

When the smoke cleared, Pedro Oregon, a 22-year-old father of two, lay dead. He'd been struck by 12 bullets, nine of them in his back.

A gun lay on the floor near Oregon's body, but no drugs were found in the apartment.

Last fall, after several weeks of hearing evidence, a grand jury returned only a single charge against only one of the officers: criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, filed against Willis. An internal police investigation was more critical.

In November Houston police chief Clarence Bradford held a press conference to announce the firing of the six officers. Pedro Oregon's killing, Bradford said, was the most egregious case of police misconduct he'd seen in his 20 years with the department. Mayor Lee Brown echoed Bradford's displeasure. The firings, he said, were "proof that our system of justice is the fairest and most democratic in the world."

Needless to say, activists such as Aaron Ruby were far from satisfied. Pedro Oregon -- a man not accused of a crime -- lay dead, and the cops who'd entered his apartment without a search warrant and wrongly shot him had merely lost their jobs. Instead of being charged with murder, only one -- one! -- was charged with trespassing. This, the activists asked, was the fairest and most democratic system of justice in the world?

Nine years earlier, Lee Brown himself had been police chief and had faced his own crisis of public confidence. In the predawn hours of October 31, 1989, 24-year-old Alex Gonzales, an intoxicated off-duty HPD officer, after an all-night drinking binge, was cruising the freeways with two other off-duty officers. At the time, HPD had no policy forbidding an intoxicated off-duty officer from carrying a weapon.

After leaving a bar early that morning, Gonzales's attention fell on Ida Lee Delaney, a Houston Post employee driving to work, when she abruptly pulled in front of the car in which he was a passenger. In a fit of rage, Gonzales and the two other officers chased Delaney down a 13-mile stretch of freeway. Apparently in fear for her life, with no way of knowing that the men were police, she fired several shots before finally pulling over. When she did, Delaney shot and wounded Gonzales; he, in turn, shot and killed her.

Less than a month later, Scott Tschirhart, a white HPD officer who'd previously been involved in several questionable shootings and the beating of a handcuffed prisoner, stopped Byron Gillum, a black security guard, for speeding. Tschirhart went back to his patrol car and from his mobile computer sent a message asking the dispatcher to find some reason for the officer to arrest Gillum "because he has an attitude." The dispatcher found nothing.

Tschirhart later said he believed the security guard was reaching for a pistol that lay on the front seat of the his car. The officer shot Gillum six times, including four times in the back. Witnesses said that Gillum was on his hands and knees, trying to crawl away, as Tschirhart fired his final shots.

Ada Edwards believed that the two deaths weren't isolated incidents. HPD officers, she thought, had systematic problems dealing with women and minorities. Edwards, who'd worked in protest movements such as an antiapartheid campaign against South Africa, was a product of the California '60s. And so, naturally, she helped organize a protest group, the Ida Lee Delaney/Byron Gillum Justice Committee.

Under her direction, the committee held numerous street protests and converged on City Hall to condemn the shootings and insist on change. The group demanded that HPD become more ethnically diverse, that officers receive more sensitivity training and that the city create a powerful civilian review board to investigate police matters. The committee wanted the department to change "how officers were recruited, maintained, evaluated and the whole bit," says Edwards. "For us, it became bigger than Byron Gillum and Ida Delaney."

The committee never got the review board it wanted. Instead, it saw the creation of the Civilian Review Committee, which reviews internal police reports about officer misconduct and passes its recommendations on to the chief. But Chief Bradford believes the department was indeed changed by the Gillum and Delaney shootings, that the Houston Police Department is now a more diverse and open organization and that officers themselves are now less tolerant of misconduct by their colleagues.

And Bradford himself does not take the position that his officers could do no wrong, or even that the Oregon shooting was within the legal bounds of police work. "I know what the department policies are, and I have reviewed the law in the areas that concern the Pedro Oregon case," says Bradford. "And I am confident in saying that, in my opinion, Texas state laws were violated, and the United States Constitution was violated."

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